A few years ago, Edmontonian Glenna Gardiner dusted off an old painting in her basement and mailed it to a friend as a birthday gift. It was a small piece, just 18 by 25 centimetres, that she’d inherited from her late father. Although he’d always insisted it was an original Tom Thomson (considered the forefather of the Group of Seven, a collection of famed Canadian landscape painters), Gardiner had laughed off the notion. Her dad had been a bit of a joker.
However, her longtime friend wasn’t so skeptical and, after receiving the gag gift in the mail, took it to an appraiser. Not only was it an authentic Tom Thomson, but it was worth between $125,000 and $175,000. Luckily for Gardiner, her friend returned the piece and it later sold it for $481,250 through a Toronto auction house, making national headlines.
But others aren’t so lucky, like whoever donated an original self-portrait by David Bowie to a Northern Ontario thrift store last year. The piece, “D Head XLVI,” caught the eye of a shopper who noticed the signature and consulted an auction house. It later sold for $108,120 — a record price for a painting by the deceased rock icon.
“People don’t know what things are worth,” says Clinton Beck, a self-described “treasure hunter” who owns four antique and collectible shops in and around Edmonton, plus an auction house and a company that clears out estates. Beck says people often come into his shops with stuff of all sorts — from coin collections and silver bars, to antique typewriters and stamp collections — hoping to either sell them for cash (Beck buys items outright, not on consignment) or have them professionally appraised. Folks are often dismayed to learn their cherished possessions aren’t worth much in the marketplace, despite their sentimental value or age (old things aren’t inherently valuable, he says).
However, the opposite scenario also plays out. “People think something’s worth nothing and they get rid of a family heirloom that was worth thousands of dollars,” says Beck.
Although there’s a low risk you’ll accidentally give away an original David Bowie or Tom Thomson, appraiser Brent Luebke says it’s not unusual for people to unknowingly donate high-value art to charities. Luebke owns Lando Gallery on 124th street and its sister company, Lando Auctions, and frequently fields calls from staff and volunteers at charity donation centres who suspect they’ve received valuable donations. Often, they’re right, he says, recalling a painting he recently appraised (pro bono) for $10,000: “It could’ve just as easily been put on a shelf.”
Like any other consumer good, the value of art, jewellery, collectibles, sports memorabilia, antiques, and other treasures can vary wildly — and change over time. Luebke says folks are often surprised to learn that their grandmother’s porcelain Hummel figurines, popular in North America after WWII, are worth a couple of dollars each and not their original $50 pricetag. Most antique furniture is also not worth much as downsizing baby boomers have flooded the market.
At the same time, “books have come into favour again,” he says, in part because some first editions have become rarer and research libraries are purchasing them alongside collectors. Since the pandemic started, sports collectibles have boomed; in December 2020, a Gretzky rookie card sold for $1.29 million and was flipped, five months later, for $3.7 million. And remember those Pokemon cards kids bought with couch change in the early 2000s? Some of those now sell for hundreds of dollars.
Art appraiser Daniel Deyell — who gave away his daughters’ Pokemon cards when they went to college — says rare and high-value art tends to increase over time. An extreme example: Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” painting, which sold for $10,000 in 2005 and $450 million in 2017. It’s a different story for lesser-known artists, though. Deyell appraised a silk screen print by Canadian artist Jane Ash Poitras for $500 two years ago and, last year, noticed a similar piece sell for $150. “That’s why, when I appraise something, I say, “Given this market, on this date, this piece is worth this much,” he says. Appraisals are both time- and context-specific.
Deyell recommends that folks take a second look before tossing out art (or any other items of potential value), but knows that appraisal fees (typically $175/hour) can seem high. If he suspects a piece of art is unlikely to be worth more than his fees, he’ll tell a client — but not all appraisers can do this.
If you don’t need a formal appraisal for legal or insurance reasons, there are other ways to figure out what something’s worth. Deyell often directs people to auction houses, which offer an informal evaluation with a ballpark estimate, and may even sell your item in an upcoming online auction (for 20-40 per cent of selling price). You can also hire an appraiser for a walk-through (also called a content evaluation or verbal evaluation) of a property and he or she will identify anything of value.
You can also do your own online sleuthing. “With some Internet knowledge, you can find out a little bit about what something’s worth,” says Beck. Even if you don’t know what you have, a Google image search of your object can help you narrow it down.
For anyone clearing out an entire estate, the easiest option is hiring one of a growing number of companies specializing in clearing out estates. Sometimes, these businesses are sister companies to auction houses (like Lando Auctions and Beck Auctions) and will auction anything of value and toss the rest. Auction houses are also a good choice for anyone who doesn’t have time to spare to fuss with appraisals or finding buyers. After all, you can try to sell it yourself — and keep all of the profits — but will you find a buyer?
Beck notes that auction houses have databases of buyers they invite to auctions and going online during COVID has only driven prices up. “If you have a good auction house that’s well connected, you should get good results.”